Happy Valley Tilt Next On Illini Agenda

The Fighting Illini basketball team is in Happy Valley preparing for its Tuesday night encounter with Penn State. The Nittany Lions have given the Illini fits the last few years, and their big upset of Michigan State is a reminder they can beat anyone on a given night. Senior guard Talor Battle has been a thorn in the Illini's side throughout his career.

In case Illinois was becoming tipsy from its 70% shooting in its last game, Penn State's big win over Michigan State sobered it up. The Nittany Lions have been hard to beat for the Illini, a fact coach Bruce Weber reminded his players.

"Penn State's done pretty well against us in these seniors' careers. The last seven games, they won four and we won three. They're aware of that. And when you throw in Michigan State, hopefully it got our guys' attention and we go in there and play our butts off."

Senior Mike Davis says the four seniors in PSU's starting lineup have taken the Illini to task. He and fellow seniors Mike Tisdale, Bill Cole and Demetri McCamey have a score to settle.

"Their seniors have a winning record against us, so we've got to prove something to them. We're 3-0, but that doesn't mean anything so far. We have to take care of business against Penn State."

Weber used the upset of Michigan State as a wakeup call for the Illini.

"You can look at it one of two ways. They're gonna have confidence after the game, now they want to keep it going and do well in the Big 10. Or, they're gonna relax. I don't know.

"Seventeen of the top 25 lost last weekend, so welcome to conference play. And then Michigan takes Kansas to overtime. It's part of college basketball. A lot of it is our mental approach. I hope it got our guys' attention."

Penn State is led once again by Talor Battle, generously listed at 6'-0", 170 pounds. The smart, quick senior can take over a game at any time and has single-handedly pulled out a couple wins over the Illini in the last minute of games.

He averages 21.5 points a game and a surprising 5.2 rebounds a game. He has also dished out 48 assists. Demetri McCamey doesn't see it as a personal contest between the two, and they may not defend each other. But McCamey has great respect for the Nittany Lion star and describes his assets.

"His speed and his shooting ability. He can knock down shots in a lot of ways. He's so fast you can't really get up on him to contest his jump shot. With a player like that, you've got to try to limit his touches and get him to shoot some forced shots."

Illini assistant Wayne McClain provides additional insight into Battle's effect on games.

"He plays so many minutes, and he's so durable. He's a little guy with a big heart. He's an unconscious guy offensively. Some of his shots you think, 'that helped us.' The whole thing is, he's not gonna stop shooting it, and you've got to recognize that.

"He's got deep range, and at any given time he will launch a shot that somebody else would probably get thrown under the bus for. He gives them a chance every night, so you've got to live with some of those shots.

"I think he's an exciting player to watch. Just like Demetri stirs us, he definitely stirs that team. They're gonna be just as good as he is, just like Demetri is some nights.

"We want to do what a lot of teams haven't done, and that's try to guard him. Sometimes the whole key is, you have to understand some of those guys are gonna score. You have to prevent the other guys around them from hurting you as much. Such players are gonna be great; you have to shut down the other guys. Sometimes that really helps."

Illini D.J. Richardson did an admirable job on Battle last season, studying his tendencies and hounding him the whole game.

"I know he's a very quick and very smart player. So I've got to be prepared for him. I know he's still free-style within the offense and basically does what he does. He's a good player, and you've got to be smart to guard him."

PSU is not a one man team. Weber says it is balance that has made the Nittany Lions tough to defend this year.

"One, the other guys are playing better, which is important for their progress. (Jeff) Brooks, (Andrew) Jones, and (David) Jackson, and the young redshirt freshman (Jermaine) Marshall coming off the bench (provide balance).

"People are keying on Battle, and the other guys are kind of playing off that. In the Michigan State game, a couple times the big guys would fly out at Battle, and he would make the nice little drop-down pass for an easy layup or a dunk."

"Brooks is just starting to really play well. He's a veteran player, he's got length, he can do some things on the perimeter, he can post up and he can really rebound. You've got to do a good job on Battle, you can't let him get 30. But you have to do a good job on Brooks, and on Jackson also."

The senior Brooks (6'-8", 200) averages 13.7 points and 8.1 rebounds a game. He has double-doubles in his last two games and is shooting .566 from the field. Jackson (6'-7", 210) is a senior with 10.9 and 4.6 averages in points and boards. Fellow senior Jones (6'-10", 245) is shooting .543 while scoring at a 5.9 ppg clip. He averages five and a half rebounds.

The other starter is sophomore Tim Frazier (6'-1", 160). Frazier isn't a big scorer, but he leads the team with 68 assists and 20 steals. Others who see playing time include freshman Taran Buie (6'-2", 185), redshirt freshman Marshall (6'-4", 190), redshirt freshman Billy Oliver (6'-8", 215) and junior Cammeron Woodyard (6'-5", 210). Marshall is shooting 52% from the field including 40% from the arc.

The Illini cannot double-team Battle given the firepower alongside him. Mike Davis is aware of the defensive job needed by the Illini front line.

"They've progressed a lot this season. Brooks didn't play that much, now he's playing 38 minutes against Michigan State. It'll be a tough matchup. He can shoot the three, and David Jackson can shoot the three. Jones is a good rebounder. So it's a tough matchup for all of us. We have to stop those guys."

Cole agrees.

"They've got a great supporting cast this year, so you can't just focus on Battle. We have to have a more balanced defensive effort. They're a great team, and when you play in Happy Valley anything can happen. They'll be fired up trying to get two big wins in a row."

Penn State outrebounded the aggressive Spartans the other day, and Brooks is especially adept on the offensive glass. McCamey knows the Illini need to be prepared for the contest.

"They're a good team. They're gonna play 110%, and they're gonna be physical. We have to box out and rebound the basketball against them and not give them second chances. They have a good point guard in Battle, and they have a double-double guy. We have a challenge on our hand. Their record doesn't prove how good a team they are."

If it is true teams play like they practice, the Illini should play well. Weber has been pleased with the intensity of recent practices, and the improvements shown by younger players. There has been no apparent complacency after the easy victory over Northwestern.

"It's been good, to be honest. They went pretty hard (Sunday). They were competing and getting after it. I think that's positive. I think a big thing is the improvement in practice of the younger guys.

"Early we had good competition. I don't know if those guys kind of gave in, saying they're not gonna play a lot, and the exams and a freshman wall. There were a couple weeks where I didn't think they were fighting like they did earlier.

"Now, Jereme (Richmond) might have had his best practice of the year (Sunday). Meyers (Leonard) has his ups and downs, but he is starting to compete and battle, learning what he can do and can't do. Joseph Bertrand has really played well in practice the last couple weeks. So I was pleased with it."

Every game from now on will be a war; there can be no let-up for the team that wins the Big 10 championship. That is the Illini's goal, and they continue that quest Tuesday.

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